Branding: the strategy and specificity of image equity

Branding is thrust more so to the forefront of initiatives as publicity becomes the deciding factor in whether a business succeeds or fails

1961: files a patent for the exclusive use of its name and its founders are bought out in acrimonious circumstances

Branding is a tricky business; more often than not, experts are carted in by companies to help create the buzz they need to attract and retain customers. But branding is an imprecise science and even the top specialists can fail. Different types of companies require different branding strategies to appeal to specific client bases. Small businesses may have a more local focus while multinationals often want to appear individualistic to a larger audience. From the logo, name and appearance, to how a company responds to crises, every instance of a client coming into contact with the company influences brand equity.

Truly good branding should go beyond a logo to inhabit the collective subconscious. The most successful brands are part of our daily lives and are consumed without a thought. In an attempt to crack the secret of this success, we have compiled an easy guide to good branding (disclaimer: follow advice at your own peril, these steps in no way guarantee success).

Define your business
Good branding means a company is easily identifiable to its customers. Often branding will focus on the unique selling point of a business. Branding expert Laura Ries says: “A brand is a name that stands for something in prospective customers’ minds. Brands are worthless unless they stand for something in the mind. And the more things you try to hang on a brand name, the less it stands for.”

It is important to be consistent. All customers must receive the same message about the product and company in order to maintain a consistent level of expectation. For example, McDonald’s customers know that a Big Mac will be identical in any country they visit.

For Ries, the first provision a company must take is to “find an open category in the mind, and give that open category a simple name”. She cites Red Bull as a prime example of what good branding is; Dietrich Mateschitz not only created an innovative product, he created a whole new market. Ries says: “Even more important than the Red Bull name was his choice of category name. He called the category an ‘energy drink’.”

Be innovative
Richard Branson, the omnipresent CEO of Virgin says: “Your brand or name is simply your reputation: you have to fight in life to protect that as it means everything. Nothing is more important.” A creative combination of name and design can go a long way in creating space between a company and its competitors in the eyes of consumers.

In reality, few people can tell one cola drink from the next, and yet they still choose Coca-Cola: the company is number three on Forbes‘s ‘Most Powerful Brands’ list and its eponymous soft drink accounts for almost half of its sales. It is Coca-Cola’s powerful brand that encourages consumers to buy its drink instead of similar rivals.

Louboutin’s marketing strategy consists of little more than having its shoes photographed on aspirational feet

Ries says: “Almost every branding success story follows the same pattern. An innovator notices an empty hole in the marketplace and then introduces a new brand that goes on to exploit that new category. Some examples: Starbucks, the first high-end coffee house; Haagen-Dazs, the first high-end ice cream.”

Sometimes, these new categories are simply a way of differentiating a product, rather than a true invention. Ice cream has been around since time immemorial: Haagen-Dazs just found a new way to market it.

Creativity plays a huge part in this process. Clearly, a more original and visually exciting logo will remain in customer’s minds for longer. This is also where marketing campaigns come in; prospective clients must be exposed to a brand before they choose to buy it. There is no one-size-fits-all model for marketing, as different companies will have different needs and appeal to different audiences, but some of the most successful campaigns are also the most creative.

Apple, for instance, saw sales boom and street-cred skyrocket thanks to a branding rethink. Now, every product that comes from the company’s California design centre oozes brand appeal: customers can always tell an Apple product from its competitors. Steve Jobs became a walking campaign and the company ran a series of ads associating Apple products with ‘cool’ individuals and businesses: all the while portraying its (often more affordable) competitors’ products as ‘square’.

For Reis, a marketing campaign must come with a brand launch. She says: “The thing with words is you need a whole lot of them to get an emotional response. In branding, you don’t have time to write three chapters to get people emotional. No one gives you that.”

Create an emotional connection
Steps one and two have been executed successfully when customers feel an emotional connection with a brand. Admittedly, this is the trickiest and most intangible part of the branding process, as it not only relies on marketing but also on the product itself.

But to nail the emotional connection means the branding efforts have yielded results. The goal is to make customers associate a particular brand with a positive memory or a strong feeling. This association will drive consumers to pick one brand over its competitors, time after time.

This connection can be real or perceived. For instance, Christian Louboutin, a French ladies’ shoe company with annual revenues of over $250m in 2011, is an empire built on a red lacquered sole. When consumers see actresses, models and other high-profile women wearing Louboutin shoes – characterised by the distinctive soles and worth anywhere between £400 and several thousand pounds – they immediately make an emotional connection: red soles equal luxury. Louboutin’s marketing strategy consists of little more than having its shoes photographed on aspirational feet. This has been enough to achieve that desirable brand connection.

Customers can always tell an Apple product from its competitor

Brand loyalty is extremely important and increasingly hard to cultivate. In times of economic turmoil, few customers can promise infallible devotion to their beloved brands when cheaper alternatives are available. Report after report suggests brand loyalty is not a priority for shoppers – particularly young ones – but social media and the internet are helping reverse this trend by offering customers an opportunity to interact with businesses, enhancing the all-important brand connection.

When Lay’s potato chips opened themselves up online, asking fans to create their next flavour, they were sending a clear message to consumers: we care what you think. Meanwhile, consumers were attracted to a product they had already established an emotional connection with.

Monitoring, reviewing and updating
It is crucial to monitor a brand once it has been fully developed. Companies grow and change, but brands must remain relevant. “You need to differentiate between a brand and a company,” explains Reis. “A brand lives or dies by its category. Polaroid was a powerful instant photography brand. But when instant photography declined, so did the Polaroid brand.”

“The Polaroid Company, however, could have prospered by introducing new brands to exploit new categories. They probably should have introduced a new brand of digital cameras. Instead, they tried to use the Polaroid brand on regular film and a variety of other products. They were all failures and Polaroid, the company, went bankrupt.”

At this stage in brand development, promotional materials and advert campaigns become crucial; it is important for a brand to remain at the forefront of its consumers’ minds. But good brands take time to develop and will often require a company to cover a lot of ground. Market research and performance reviews can help, but branding is continuous work.

Part of this maintenance involves knowing how to respond to a crisis without damaging the brand. In an increasingly connected world, brand failures hardly go unnoticed by consumers. Long-term strategies are vital and must consider how online and social media profiles might impact branding success or failure.

Social media has also brought a demand for transparency from the public. Online information is shared and exchanged freely, and consumers expect this type of relationship with the brands they favour. Writing in Forbes, Brent Gleeson and Carrie Peterson said: “In today’s digital world, transparency is an inherent reality, as people will be talking about issues associated with your brand online.”

Companies need to embrace this and get involved in guiding that conversation. In a report from eMarketer, 77 percent of buyers said they are more likely to buy from a company if the CEO uses social media, and 82 percent trust the company more.

Good branding alone, however, will never be infallible. Companies must be prepared to rethink their branding or reposition it in the face of adversity. A change in branding strategy might be the saving grace for a floundering company: or it could be the final nail in its coffin.

Reis said: ìThe right time to reposition a company or brand is when the market changes. For example, the market for mainframe computers has been dying a slow death over many decades. IBM has successfully repositioned itself as a ‘global computer service company’. You need a lot of patience to reposition a company or brand.

It’s harder to change a brand in the mind than it is to put a new brand in the mind. So you need to give the repositioning process enough time to make the changes you want to make. Also, you need a link to the past. IBM was successful because it traded on its mainframe reputation to build a new position as a computer service company. You canít walk away from what you already are.

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